Muwekma Ohlone chair presses Rep. Ro Khanna on federal recognition

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Muwekma Ohlone Tribe Chair Charlene Nijmeh confronted Rep. Ro Khanna (D-District 17) late last week during a La Raza Roundtable event, questioning why he refuses to support the tribe’s quest to restore its federal recognition.

The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, with an estimated 600 members, has a long history in the Bay Area, with evidence of their presence dating back thousands of years. However, the tribe has been unable to get its federal recognition clarified because of years of opposition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and local elected officials. The federal government previously recognized Muwekma as the Verona Band of Alameda County, but the tribe effectively lost its status because of the negligence of a federal official in Sacramento in 1927 and the declaration of an anthropologist named Alfred Kroeber that the tribe was extinct in the ’50s. The BIA confirmed in the ’90s that the tribe’s status was never officially terminated because neither Congress nor any executive agency ever formally withdrew the recognition.

With its federal recognition reaffirmed, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe would be able to access federal funding for health care, housing, education and other critical services, as well as more agency to self-govern. But the process of getting the tribe’s recognition restored has been fraught with obstacles and setbacks.

Most recently, Khanna and other elected officials have refused to support the tribe’s recognition unless more senior members of the Bay Area delegation like Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-District 18), who want the tribe to give up its gaming rights, are willing to support it. This has drawn criticism from the tribe and its supporters, who see it as an attack on the tribe’s sovereignty and economic self-determination.

Nijmeh posted a roughly two-minute video on Twitter that shows the chair asking Khanna to lead on legislation restoring the tribe’s federal recognition, though he refuses and brings up the issue of gaming.

“It has to do with sovereignty,” Nijmeh said, “not whether we want to do gaming or not. Those are two different issues … Congress can do this, and they have recognized 26 other tribes.”

Khanna responded that he was hoping Interior Secretary Deb Haaland would recognize the tribe instead, adding he would support any resolutions that came before Congress to reaffirm the tribe’s status if it was introduced in the House Committee on Natural Resources, which oversees policies related to Indigenous affairs.

“Whenever the legislation is introduced, you have my commitment to co-sponsor it,” Khanna said.

Khanna has refused to respond to multiple requests for comment over several months.

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